“It was the best feeling ever. It was like I could do no wrong.
‘Maybe you can't play over your head at all.
Maybe it's just potential you never knew you had.
—Fran Tarkenton, Football Hall of Famer
Peak performances are awesome experiences. They should be sought, though not chased nor expected. When an athlete improves her mental skills, she increases her chance of having a peak performance and her chances at staying in the zone longer. Leaders are mentally tough not only because they get into the zone more often than others, but also because they learn to “have a good, sh–ty day.” Fortunately, the strategies leaders use to get in the zone more often and perform better when they are not there are the same.
Awareness of what defines a peak performance is useful. Two descriptions of what many people would call an indescribable experience follow:
‘At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precious moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again.
—Yuri Vlasov, World Champion Weight Lifter
‘When you’re in the zone, you have switched from a training mode to a trusting mode. You’re not fighting yourself. You’re not afraid of anything. You’re living in the moment in a special place and time. Athletes in the zone see everything with clarity. They are relaxed, they perform with a quiet mind with no indecision and no doubts. They can almost anticipate what is going to happen. They are totally absorbed.
—Gary Mack, Sport Psychologist and Author
My definition? I believe that a peak performance is an extremely positive experience characterized by the mind and body working in harmony to achieve a process goal. In this experience, the athlete is totally engrossed in the moment; other considerations that could weigh on her mind temporarily cease to exist. There is no fear of failure active in consciousness. The athlete is energized but not anxious, narrowly focused on appropriate cues, and confident. She often feels like time has slowed down.
Confident, Not Cocky
‘Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be thankful.
Conceit is self-given; be careful.
‘You expect success. You respect failure.
—Greg Norman, Golfer
Once an athlete finds herself having a peak performance, she will want to stay there as long as possible. Unfortunately, inherent pitfalls are waiting for her at every turn, trying to bring her back “down to earth.” While she is in the zone, she is, by definition, extremely confident. This confidence is super, but it is easy for her to become overconfident. When she is confident, she is tempted to think that she can do no wrong. She seems invincible, but if she is smart, she knows she is not. When she goes over the edge and becomes overconfident, she actually believes that the game is easy or that she is in some way invincible. Reality will bite her in the backside for this mistake, usually sooner rather than later.
The overconfident softball player makes assumptions and loses her edge. A hitter swings at everything, a fielder forgets to watch the ball into her glove, or a pitcher assumes that this pitch with two outs, nobody on, and the nine-hole hitter up is less important than other pitches. It is appropriate for the pitcher to have confidence that she can have a 1-2-3 inning, for the fielder to expect to catch the ball, or for the hitter to expect to hit it hard, but there is a limit. Knowing where that delicate balance lies is a tightrope act. With humility and alertness, awareness of how to avoid a bad fall can be acquired. This is all part of her learning process for approaching potential.
While searching for the balance of appropriate aggressiveness, an athlete can help maintain a peak performance by excusing mistakes as part of the normal process of learning her boundaries. The hitter’s poor swing decision (e.g. swinging at a ball or a pitcher’s pitch with less than two strikes) was bound to happen at some point, so she should not let that mistake bother her. She should certainly learn and adjust, but if she is bothered, she is likely to lose that zoned-in feeling. The emphasis of the mistake in her self-talk creates a feeling of concern, which is the opposite of the feeling she has when she is in the zone. Instead, she should maintain the fantastic, confident attitude that brought her to this point by focusing on what she learned and all the things she is doing correctly. Ultimately, she wants to maximize confidence – more is always better – without becoming cocky. She achieves this by respecting the difficulty of the game.
Peak performances are awesome experiences. Despite the fact that they should not be expected, they should be sought. Leaders know how to maximize their chances for successful outcomes on the diamond. They also recognize that the same mental skills that increase the chances for a peak performance also lead to best effort performance even when they are not “in the zone.” Their goal is always to play the best possible at this point and time, and leaders do this by creating an ideal state, committing to a plan of attack, and focusing on the task at hand.
|Aaron Weintraub holds a B.A. from Emory University (1993) and a M.Ed. from the University of Virginia (2000). He served as an assistant baseball coach for 13 years before starting www.CoachTraub.com, a consulting business whose mission is to over-deliver value on goods and services designed to help you win the mental side of the game. He works with teams and individuals, adding clarity to help them get what they want for their sport. CoachTraub.com also runs camps and clinics and has an online store.Weintraub is the author of Coaches Guide to Winning the Mental Game (Coaches Choice, 2009) and An Elite Athlete’s Manual for Training Mental Skills (self-published, 2011). He lives in The Colony, TX with his wife, Nicole, and their four children.|
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